Flynn's Focus

March 24 - What will Tampa Bay do with Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott? This is a question Bucs fans have been trying to get an answer to ever since head coach Jon Gruden arrived in Tampa. Buccaneer Magazine recently had an exclusive interview with Gruden, and fans can find out what he had to say about the A-Train's future with the Pewter Pirates in this week's installment of Flynn's Focus.

A five-time Pro Bowler usually doesn't have to worry about job security, but Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott will apparently have to put on quite a show during the April 5-7 mini-camp in order to remain a Buccaneer next season.

Why is Alstott's job in jeopardy? Well, there are few reasons, but Tampa Bay's main issue with Alstott is his pricey cap figure. The A-Train will have a cap value of $4.6 million this season, which includes a $2 million roster bonus due to him on April 15. In 2003, Alstott's cap value catapults to $8.6 million, including another $2 million roster bonus.

If Bucs head coach Jon Gruden decides to indeed act on his recent flirtations with trading or cutting Alstott, Tampa Bay will save $2.7 million this season.

"After what I've been through, I'd say nobody is untouchable (when it comes to a potential trade)," said Gruden. "We've got some guys here that I'm really looking forward to working with. I can't imagine going to war without Warren Sapp. I can't imagine waiving the flag without Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. You'd have to offer a pretty good size country to get some of these guys. But anything is possible in football. Anything can happen."

Alstott, however, has a partial no-trade clause in his contract, so that, along with his high cap value, will make it difficult for the Bucs to deal him. There has been some talk about Alstott restructuring his deal in an effort to stay in Tampa, but a lower cap figure would not only please the club, it might make him more tradeable.

Gruden isn't exactly sure what to do with Alstott in the offense he is currently installing. Gruden's offense is said to be similar to a West Coast offense, but includes quite a few unique wrinkles. If given the opportunity, Alstott could have success in such a system, and his numbers over the last six years would support such a sentiment.

Along with his five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, Alstott has rushed 3,982 yards (3.9 avg.) as a pro since Tampa Bay selected him in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft out of Purdue. The A-Train has also scored 50 career touchdowns and 40 rushing touchdowns, which both rank first in franchise history.

Alstott's 6-foot-1, 248-pound frame allows him to be a bruising type back who possesses impressive quickness and cutting ability for a back of his size, but Gruden may have trouble seeing past Alstott's high cap figure, past fumbling problems and his less than stellar blocking ability.

Gruden wants a back who can be a threat in both the rushing and passing game, and Alstott's catching ability out of the backfield could be one reason Gruden would opt to retain the A-Train. In his rookie season (96'), Alstott caught a career-high 65 passes for 557 yards and three touchdowns. One might argue that his abilities as a receiver dropped off as he added size over the years, but last season, Alstott caught 35 passes (second most in career) for 231 yards and scored one touchdown.

Alstott also showed an ability to be an effective running back in a woeful offense last season. The Bucs finished the 2001 season ranked 30th in the league in rushing offense, but the A-Train still managed to rush for 680 yards (4.1 avg.) and 10 touchdowns while splitting running duties with RB Warrick Dunn.

"To put it mildly, yeah, that (running back) would be a pressing need," said Gruden. "A full court press is a better way to put it. We're going to look hard to improve that situation. We've got to improve our running game, period. I think we were (30th) in the National Football League a year ago. We have an opportunity to look at the free agent backs and it may be a committee of backs. We'll wait and see, but we're going to add some players to that group, absolutely."

The Buccaneers extended the date in which Alstott is to receive his $2 million roster bonus from April 1 to April 15. Tampa Bay likely extended the date in order to give Gruden and his offensive coaching staff a look at Alstott in person during the April 5-7 mini-camp before they make a final decision on his future with the team.

"I can't really formally tell you exactly what the roles of anybody is going to be," Gruden said when asked about Alstott's role. "The thing I have learned is before you make too many statements, you might want to go out there and work with these guys and kind of draw your own conclusions."

If Bucs general manager Rich McKay is able to redo Alstott's contract and Gruden likes what he sees during the upcoming mini-camp, perhaps the A-Train could be part of a two-back offensive set that Gruden often used during his four-year tenure in Oakland. Gruden had an effective two-back offensive set with running backs Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley, and then Wheatley and Charlie Garner. In fact, the Raiders used all five of their running backs during the 2001 season.

"I'm anxious to see everybody," said Gruden. "I saw Rich Gannon differently as some other coaches, and maybe I'll see this guy differently than you'll see him. That's the beauty of being an American. You can all have an opinion, and you all can express it, too. We're going find out about a lot of these guys. I will tell you that I know Mike (Alstott) is a real physical back and his role will be determined based on who we sign, where we go and what we do."

Bucs RB Aaron Stecker, FB Jameel Cook and Alstott are the only running backs currently under contract, but Tampa Bay is reportedly close to signing Arizona free agent RB Michael Pittman (6-0, 218), which means he would likely become the feature back in Gruden's offense.

The Bucs have also brought in some other free agent running backs for workouts, including former Falcons RB Byron Hanspard and former Bears RB Curtis Enis. On Monday, March 25, former New York Giants FB Greg Comella is expected to visit One Buc Place, which will further cloud Alstott's future with the Pewter Pirates.

Whether Gruden finds a place in his offense for Alstott or opts to part ways with him, his decision will likely come before April 15. If Tampa Bay signs Pittman and they do not renegotiate the A-Train's contract, Alstott's chances of walking the plank will dramatically increase since the team will not likely be able or willing to commit such an abundant amount of money to their offensive backfield.

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